The colorful winter garden

We have been enjoying a surprising number of mostly dry and partially sunny days the past several weeks with only the occasional instances of pouring rain. Along with these dryer winter days come colder temperatures, which I don’t mind since the colder the winter garden, the more intense the colors become in several of my conifers.

Anyone who has had the opportunity to acquire a Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph’ as certainly by now seen the super-bright yellow of his winter glow. I’ve mentioned in the past that ‘Chief Joseph’ tends to sit quietly in the background through the growing season, when other plants are taking center stage. This is the time of year when the Chief quietly steps forward and commands full attention of anyone within view. The intensity of his bright yellow color seems to grow stronger as winter gets colder. He’s shining very brightly in my garden right now.

Pinus contorta 'Chief Joseph'
Pinus contorta 'Chief Joseph' may be enjoyed in containers or planted directly in garden.

Other fun conifers to put on a colorful winter show are Cryptomeria japonica ‘Mushroom’ and ‘Hino’.  I mention these two specifically because they are tremendously attractive dwarf conifers that not only perform brilliantly in the garden, but they also make delightful little specimens in the container garden on deck or patio. Both will grow into nice rounded little mounding forms, but they do have distinctly different characteristics. ‘Hino’ has a somewhat tighter growing habit that grows into a more globose looking form. Its short, thick, awl-like needles give this great little globe a coarse texture.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Hino' - winter color
Cryptomeria japonica 'Hino' - winter color

‘Mushroom’ on the other hand, has a very slightly more open habit and longer (though similarly succulent-looking) needles that are surprisingly soft to the touch. ‘Mushroom’ also has a little less of a globe-shaped form and rather looks like a very large (stemless) mushroom cap. Both cultivars are shades of rich green during the growing season and take on a special, bronze, orange, plum blush in winter.

Cryptomeria japonica Mushroom
Winter color of the succulent needles on Cryptomeria japonica 'Mushroom' make a delightful winter show in the conifer garden.
Cryptomeria japonica Mushroom
With a form like an extra-large, stemless, furry mushroom cap, 'Mushroom' is an interesting addition to the garden.

Planted near other conifers of complementary colors will ensure that your garden is as delightful through the winter months as it is through spring and summer.

Conifer Lover

11 thoughts on “The colorful winter garden

  1. Great post – love those Chief Josephs, and ‘Mushroom’ has always been a particular favorite. In fact, Cryptomeria in general are such stars in the winter garden it is a shame that they don’t get more respect. They don’t seem to look as good in a pot as some other conifers, which may be why they are more of an acquired taste.


  2. Hi Ed… I like every one of your featured conifers this post… I haven’t had any luck locating Chief Joseph, unfortunately, but will grab it when I do run across it! I doubt the cryptomerias would be very reliable in our climate which is also unfortunate for me… they’re great looking specimens!
    I was wondering if you had any more info on those hardy Japanese maple hybrids we discussed many months ago… I never was able to locate any further information on them. Take care, Larry


    1. Hi Larry! Yes, I don’t expect that the Cryptomeria will survive your climate unless you grow them in containers and overwinter them in a bright garage or greenhouse.

      I do have good news regarding the selected Acer x psuedosieboldianum hybrid cultivars. From what I understand, there are three that will be going to market beginning this year. Look for (or request your local independent garden center to special order) ‘North Wind’, ‘Arctic Jade’ and ‘Avalanche’. These three were selected for their hardiness, good form, distinct leaf characteristics and great autumn color. Perhaps it’s time for me to write a new blog post – I’ll see if I can learn more and ask Mr. Smith to provide some photos for me……


    1. Hi Jan – I’m not familiar with the climate of NW FL other than the fact that it is a LOT sunnier and warmer than the Pacific Northwest. I suspect it may be a little too hot there, but I’ll ask around and see what I may discover. What I suspect, since the great color of ‘Chief Joseph’ comes on with the colder temperatures of winter, it may not color up in your area. He grows just a few inches per year, so he’ll slowly grow to get large over time.


  3. Ed, I saw Chief Joseph last year at a trade show and it was like a beacon with it’s bright needles.I’ve yet to see it for sale in any local nurseries but I do keep looking.


    1. Hi Debbie! I had to pull your message out of the SPAM heap. I guess WordPress must have changed the way they are filtering. Funny since you are probably the most regular to comment here. Anyway, I hope you have success finding the Chief this year – he’s worth waiting for.


    1. Hi Fred – I like to see the Chief planted with companions that emphasize his bright color in the winter, like dark green or bluish conifers as background trees. I like to see other plants take the spotlight during the spring and summer when the Chief himself generates a little less excitement, so ferns colorful perennials in the foreground that will die-back in late autumn/winter.


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